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Health Discovery

Hearing Aids in the Loop

hearing aid

— Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Getting around on the New York subways just got a lot easier for hard-of-hearing passengers. That’s because station information booths are now fitted with “hearing loops” thanks to the efforts of Janice Schacter, chair of the Manhattan-based Hearing Access Program, and funds from President Obama’s stimulus package. “We had a shovel-ready project that fit the criteria,” says Schacter.

Much as a Wi-Fi network delivers wireless Internet access to computer users in coffee shops, a loop system takes sound from an electronic source, such as a microphone or TV, and delivers it directly to a hearing aid, right into a listener’s head.

Hearing loops are relatively simple to install. The loop is created when a wire is installed around the perimeter of the room or the subway information booth and plugged into an audio source. That wire then sends a signal to a tiny copper coil that’s now standard in most hearing aids. (Older hearing aids can usually be retrofitted for about $250.)

“Hearing loops increase access for the hard of hearing in public venues like churches, concert halls, theaters and even airports where poor acoustics sometimes prevent understanding even for people with normal hearing,” says Juliette Sterkens, an audiologist in Oshkosh, Wis.

It’s a technology that works equally well in the privacy of the home. Virginia Carr, an 84-year-old former secretary in Santa Fe, N.M., looped her den 10 years ago to accommodate her hearing loss. “My husband has very acute hearing” she says, “And seeing his reaction when the sound on the TV was at his comfort level but I could hear too was a joy.” The price for home loop systems ranges from $140 to $270. Find a list of vendors at HearingLoop.org.

Hearing loops have been popular in Europe for the past 30 years, but are just now catching on in the United States. In March, the American Academy of Audiology and the Hearing Loss Association of America launched a national public education campaign to inform hearing professionals and consumers about the benefits of hearing loops.

“We hope the New York subways will be a model for the rest of the country,” says Schacter.

Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in Bridgehampton, N.Y.